Wednesday, June 11, 2008

THE SITTER (2007) d. Russell Mulcahy

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

What is it about stories that have been told dozens of times that makes them both engaging and unpleasant? Are they like that horrendous car accident that you can’t turn away from because the scene is both sensational and unsettling? For some reason, there are a few old cautionary tales that have become almost like modern fables and in spite of being mined to death in novel or film form, they just don’t ever seem to fade away. THE SITTER (aka WHILE THE CHILDREN SLEEP) is a tale nearly as old as the hills and one would think would be well past the point of being put out to pasture and yet it still has some life left in it somehow.

THE SITTER is the story of the affluent and seemingly happy Eastman family. Carter played by William R. Moses and Meghan played by Gail O’Grady are parents to young Casey and Max. The children are in need of a full-time sitter now that Meghan has gone back to the high-powered world of the executive office and Carter’s law practice is in transition. Enter Abby Reed, a smiling young woman who just happens to be in the right place at the right time. Abby takes the position as the Eastman’s sitter and soon becomes indispensable to the parents and outrageously popular with the children. Before long, Abby is turning many heads in the Eastman’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday” neighborhood, but it is not long before Abby’s agenda turns out to be something more devious than adding bucks to her purse or spending time with the kiddies. Abby has plans for the Eastman family, most notably Carter and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

If I had a nickel for every yarn spun from the old thread of “charming little Lolita takes over a household through smiles and crafty manipulation, to insinuate herself into the role of the new Missus”, I’d be able to retire from teaching. Despite being beastly predictable and calling on a host of tried and true shock tactics using carefully crafted angles and specifically utilized incidental music, this film works. Possibly it is because there is something visceral about inviting a seemingly innocent and caring person into the supposedly safe environs of “the home”, only to discover that the invited is either deranged or the devil incarnate. Maybe it speaks highly of the directors, screenwriters and producers that they can continue to draw from this well where so many have slaked their thirst, and yet the water isn’t wholly stale, nor is the well dry. Be that as it may, unless you are a very young viewer, or one who watched nothing but Nickelodeon, graduated to MTV and then decided to give Lifetime Channel or Hallmark Channel movies a try, nothing about THE SITTER should be surprising. We’ve seen it so many times before. From the constantly used plots of Soap Operas like “One Life to Live” to films like POISON IVY and THE CRUSH, the plot of THE SITTER can be sniffed out within the first fifteen minutes and every “twist” or “turn” from that point can be seen coming a mile away. Maybe director Russell Mulcahy and writer Stephen Niver decided to go the route of the Greek Tragedy and invoke the spirits of Aeschylus and Euripides, because that is exactly what THE SITTER is like, you know what the outcome is going to be, but in the end you don’t really care, you are just along for the ride.

Despite my efforts to dismiss and dislike THE SITTER, it had two traits that forced me to offer respect and a small degree of admiration. It was very capably shot and after a somewhat murky start to the story, the pace became steady and patient, but without unnecessary fat or haste. In a world where too many directors feel the need to create nausea-inducing scenes via the insipid “shaky-cam” virus, Russell Mulcahy is able to mix establishing shots, character scenes and close-ups, wide shots, jump cuts and some more creative efforts like Abby’s descent into overt madness, into a film that looks good and where you can see and contemplate all that is occurring. There is not a moment where I can’t comprehend what is happening because it is too dark or because the camera has been strapped the back of a rabid armadillo which is being stampeded across the set. While THE SITTER is not Richard Donner’s photography in SUPERMAN, it doesn’t have to be. All it needs to be is efficient, like a TV movie should. Just as efficient was the screen play. At the beginning, there was a short time when I felt like we were losing focus and drifting off into an exploration of the seamy nature of the suburbs and that THE SITTER would survey the dissolute nature of those who have more than they need. To its credit, THE SITTER got down to business, created conflict, intensified drama, developed characters and sprinkled in some shocks. In this “unrated” version that is likely to be somewhat censored when it debuts on ION TV, some of the killings and violence would probably satisfy the desires of slasher-loving movie buffs. One of the killings was a tried and true favorite of thousands of past flicks, but one was wonderfully creative, graphic and grisly, but believable. By the time that particular butchering had run its course in the first third of the film, I may have wanted to dislike THE SITTER, but I couldn’t lie to myself like that. I had to give credit where credit was due.

Another surprising quality of THE SITTER is that the performances fit the script and the actors were very well cast. Venerable William R. Moses plays the gentle and good natured father figure and object of Abby’s desire. Those who remember the 90s “Perry Mason” TV series or MYSTIC PIZZA will remember Mr. Moses playing a similar persona in a much younger package. While he may not have the range of other actors, he is very capable of giving a solid performance that can anchor the role to the story stream, and that is exactly what William Moses does. Gail O’Grady plays the cold but glamorous suburban mom superbly and like William Moses, she may not be Ingrid Bergman, but she was an ideal choice for the role of Meghan, maybe too much so. Possibly it may be my advancing age, but I found Ms. O’Grady far more attractive and eye-catching Mariana Klaveno who plays Abby, and whose coltish build and lanky limbs left me less than impressed. All through the early stages of the film, the actors playing the neighbors and friends of the Eastman family kept gawking and drooling over Abby’s “hotness”, but I found her to be far less comely than Ms. O’Grady. Maybe that explains the reticence of Carter Eastman’s character when it came to a dalliance with Abby. Like me, he is an older man and found his attractive wife far more appealing than some young cutie. What Mariana Klaveno does have is an ace up her sleeve with her acting. Her portrayal of the manipulative, mercurial and murderous Abby was dead on, from the sinister looks, to the syrupy smiles and the seductive poses. After a slightly awkward entrance in the introduction, Abby slid as slickly as a knife into the body of the story and before long she was just as impossible to ignore or deny. The rest of the cast was steady and stable, like Stacy Haiduk and Jon Lindstrom, both competent and veteran character actors who add their strengths to a cast that gives a skilled and occasionally impressive set of performances.

One place where THE SITTER falls down like a five year old running over the playground is in the extras category. There are three “auto-play” trailers at the start of the disc, and then you default to the main menu which has “play” and “scene select” and that’s it! For shame! With people like William R. Moses, Gail O’Grady and Stacy Haiduk, you have professionals who’ve been around the block and probably have some tales of Hollywood. Hell, Stacy Haiduk starred on the long lost but not forgotten “Superboy” TV show. How can you not talk to her? Finally, Russell Mulcahy directed HIGHLANDER, RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION and the miserable but fabulously cast BLUE ICE. This man has worked with some big stars and on some big projects. If you can put a Dougray Scott interview on DR. JEKYLL and MR. HYDE, at least put some kind of interview with the cast and/or crew on this dvd. As I have said MANY times before, adding even a few scraps to any dvd extras menu will increase the good will of buyers and reviewers.

If you are over 35 years of age and are looking for an avant-garde, uniquely inspirational or mind-bending horror experience, THE SITTER is probably not for you. It isn’t salacious and it isn’t bathed in blood either. It is a tale as old as civilization, for I am certain that Sumerian artisans engraving their clay tablets struggled with murderous and manipulative Lolitas during the rise of the Fertile Crescent. This film may not have the glamor of “The Saturday Night Movie of The Week”, but it plays like the “The Monday Night Movie Special”, knowing it was going to take a ratings beating from “Monday Night Football”, but also knowing that there was a niche market lurking out there in those paneled living rooms and shag carpeted dens. Treat THE SITTER like the aunt you’ve seen a million times but still like for some reason, and you will probably have some fun.

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